Polonia’s Wigilia Heritage
By Robert Strybel
Polish / Polonian Affairs Writer
There are many different ways of learning about and cultivating our Polish heritage such as. surfing the net where a wealth of information is available. Individual PolAms often take an interest in Polish, Polonian or their own family history. Others have signed up for Polish language and culture courses or made that first trip to Poland. For still others it is traditional Polish foods, crafts, customs and celebrations that have linked them to their cultural heritage.
One celebration that has nearly universal appeal is Wigilia, Polish Christmas Eve. Probably no other Polish customs are richer, more beautiful, solemn, symbolic and inspiring than those connected with Wigilia. That view has often been expressed Americans of Irish, Italian, English, German and other ethnic backgrounds that have been exposed to Wigilia by marrying into Polonian families.
Maybe that’s because it is not just another festive family gathering. It is a spirit, a mood, a frame of mind and to Poles and Polish-minded people everywhere – the single most important day of the year. At the same time we occasionally hear thinks like “over the years we have kinda drifted away from it” or “my mother-in-law used to prepare things but I wouldn’t know where to start.” For those wishing to rediscover that tradition, here are some things to remember:
- According to tradition “how you are on Christmas Eve, you will be the whole year”. If a child should have to be spanked on Christmas Eve for misbehaving, that’s what he/she can expect all year long. Grown-ups are also on their best behavior, refrain from arguments go out of their way to be nice to each another.
- The house should be spic and span, decorated with evergreen branches, garlands and a (preferably real) Christmas tree. Family members are decked out in their holiday best and the family’s best company crockery, crystalware and cutlery should be used to accentuate the special nature of Christmas Eve.
- The opłatek (Christmas wafer) should be placed on an heirloom crystal, silver or china dish or tray, flanked by an evergreen sprig and (optional) a little bundle of hay tied with a ribbon.
- A handful of hay is strewn on the bare table top (in memory of Jesus’ humble manger bed) and then covered with a preferably pure-white table-cloth. An extra empty place-setting is customarily provided in memory of some dearly departed family member, but it may be offered to some lonely traveler who happens by or a neighbor who would otherwise have to spend this special evening in solitude.
- The appearance of the evening’s first star in the sky is the signal for the festivities to begin The job of standing in a window and watching for it was usually assigned to young children — a great way to keep them from under foot when so many last-minute tasks had to be performed.
- The head of the household leads grace, then takes the opłatek, makes the Sign of the Cross over it and shares it with the next in line, wishing them good health and God’s abundant blessings. It is a time of love, forgiveness and reconciliation, when all past grudges are forgotten. Only after all have shared bits of opłatek, exchanged wishes and made their peace with everyone else, does the festive supper begin.
- The fact that the Wigilia Supper) is totally meatless and includes many once-a-year dishes, of which there are either an odd number or 12 (traditions vary!), also sets this meal apart. Typical foods include fish, mushrooms, vegetable, grain and pasta dishes and various sweet concoctions incorporating nuts, raisins, poppy seeds and honey.
- According to tradition, everyone must sample at least a bit of all the different foods laid out on the table, otherwise they may experience poverty in the year ahead. After the meal, it is customary to sing kolędy (carols). In a Polish-American setting it may be advisable to have song sheets available and sing along with a recording or a live accompaniment.
- Gifts are exchanged. Polish-American youngsters are fortunate to get their presents on the December 24th. Their non-Polish playmates have to wait till the following morning.
- Pasterka (Shepherds Mass at midnight), especially at a parish where Polish kolędy are sung, is a fitting culmination to the most beautiful night of the year.